Powerful gay men. Vulnerable teen-age boys. Murder. For years, some prominent local men who led secret lives were rumored to be protected. Whispers surrounding another important man's death prompt the question: Is there really a conspiracy?

The secret everyone knew

By ROBERT PRICE, Californian staff writer
e-mail: rprice@bakersfield.com

Monday January 20, 2003, 03:40:00 PM


For two weeks, police cars were parked around Fitts' house in a bizarre stakeout probably never before seen in the well-kept, middle- class neighborhood. (Fitts lived two doors down from then-Assemblyman Don Rogers, the former Bakersfield city councilman who'd nominated him as police commissioner four years earlier.)

More than a month after the murder, however, The Californian still had not published Fitts' name in connection with the case. Editors would wait for an arrest.

The rest of the city was fully aware of the suspect's name, it seemed.

On May 17-18, a group of 200 parents dubbed Mothers of Bakersfield picketed in front of the suspect's house, the Kern County Administration building and the courts building and announced plans to seek Leddy's recall.

Rumor that The Californian was part of a cover-up was apparently so pervasive that on May 20, then-Assistant Managing Editor Owen Kearns Jr. wrote a page A1 editor's note explaining why Fitts' name had been withheld in connection with the investigation.

"There was far more danger of being accused of a coverup had we not run the story at all than in running the story and leaving out several elements," Kearns wrote. " ... I would state emphatically that there has been no pressure from official agencies, private organizations or any individual to keep us from publishing information on this case."

It was the fear of a libel suit, not any conspiratorial pressure, Kearns explained in December 2002, that prompted the abundance of caution.

Fitts was finally identified by name in the newspaper May 22, the day after he was arrested on suspicion of furnishing drugs to minors and related misdemeanor offenses.

But the Mothers of Bakersfield wanted more.

Leddy refused to satisfy them. He told KUZZ radio he preferred not to prosecute a suspect "for dumping a body along a road" if investigators could later develop information that might lead to a murder charge.

The following week, one possible reason for the D.A'.s unwillingness to indict Fitts (or anyone else) for the murder became clear: The county coroner's office had failed to take time-of-death tests on Butler's body.

Sheriff's officials told The Californian they assumed the coroner would take crucial body-temperature readings; the coroner said such tests weren't taken unless they were specifically requested. By the time investigators realized what had happened, it was too late. The body, too cold for useful evaluation, was cremated.

Investigators also were troubled by the theory that Fitts, who had a heart condition, probably could not have committed the murder, or disposed of the body, by himself.

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January 26, 2003
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